Friday, November 14, 2008

West Sign Story

A high school in Plantation, Florida, is doing West Side Story with both hearing and deaf students.

In this version of the classic Broadway musical West Side Story, Maria falls in love with Tony without saying a word.

Instead, her hands do the singing — by signing.

South Plantation High school’s 2008 version of the nearly 50-year-old tale stars deaf and hearing students who, together, have spun an entirely new theatrical confection.

In the classic, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the ‘American’ Jets spar for control over the neighborhood. But Maria, sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, falls in love with Tony, a former Jet.

In this version, the culture clash goes beyond ethnicity: The Sharks are also deaf.

After months of planning, practicing and learning sign language, the show opened this week and continues through next weekend.

Maria is played by junior Giovanna Vazquez, who signs her parts, and junior Kellie Smith, who matches her voice to Giovanna’s hands.

Tony’s role belongs to senior Justin White, who has learned to sign, sing and act all at once.

South Plantation is where most of Broward’s hard-of-hearing and deaf high school students — about 40 — attend classes.

”We’ve used American Sign Language as another form of communication. Every word, every song, is signed,” said drama teacher Jason Zembuch, who started incorporating deaf students into school theater productions about five years ago.

Giovanna, Kellie and Justin had to work painstakingly to perfect their timing.

”You have to make your hands look like they’re singing,” said Justin, who has never had a role in a musical before, much less one so complex. ”The audience wants to know you’re not just talking.”

What a great story.